If it's made from corn, it's worthy of scorn. If it's made from weeds or trash, it could be worth cash.
That, in a nutshell, sums up the course that biofuel companies' fortunes took in 2008. While makers of corn-based ethanol saw their business falter and valuations plummet, companies promising to make ethanol, biodiesel and a host of other liquid fuels from non-food sources like switchgrass, trash and algae raked in the cash.
Whether those "next-generation" biofuel companies will do as well next year is an open question, however. None have so far produced fuel in commercial volumes at prices the market can bear. And whether venture capitalists will continue to have an appetite for investing in getting them there is an open question, given the faltering global economy.
Here, then, is a quick overview of the stories that tracked the trends of the biofuel industry through 2008 – as well as a few that lay out potential future avenues of development in the quest to move past petroleum.
VeraSun Files for Bankruptcy (Oct. 31)
The woes of companies that make ethanol from corn were highlighted by the fall of the once high-flying VeraSun Energy Corp. (NYSE: VSE), which declared bankruptcy in October. VeraSun billed itself as the world's largest ethanol company, with 14 ethanol plants with a capacity to produce 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol per year -- about 14 percent of the U.S. ethanol production capacity. But, like other makers of corn-based ethanol, the company had contended with high corn prices and subsequent razor-thin margins through much of the year, and had amassed about $1.5 billion in debt.
EPA Denies Texas Ethanol Waiver (Aug. 7)
While issues of supply and demand were the main drivers in the fall of corn-based ethanol companies in 2008, politics and environmental concerns also played their part. Those complaints found their voice in Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who in April asked the EPA to cut in half a 2007 federal mandate that the nation use nine billion gallons of biofuel, arguing that the mandate had pushed up corn prices, which in turn raised the feed cost for livestock companies and affected food prices for consumers. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency denied Texas' request in August, contending that the requirement hasn't caused food prices to rise or harmed the economy.
BP Invests $90M in Verenium for Ethanol (Aug. 6)
While corn-based ethanol waned in investors' eyes, so-called "second-generation" biofuels rose with their promise of converting non-food crops, waste and other feedstocks to biofuel. While none had produced commercial quantities of fuel at a price the market could bear, their potential drew plenty of interest from venture capitalists, as well as their erstwhile competitors – oil companies.
The $90 million investment from British oil company BP (NYSE: BP) in Cambridge, Mass.-based Verenium (NSDQ: VRNM) exemplified that trend. The two companies agreed to jointly develop technologies and refineries to produce and sell ethanol. BP was no stranger to biofuel investment. In 2007 it gave $500 million to a consortium of research institutions led by UC Berkeley last year to develop second-generation biofuels.
Codexis Says No to IPO (Sept. 4)
Despite the allure of companies offer biofuels made from non-food sources, the public markets proved a bad place to look for funding them. That's what led biofuel-catalyst developer Codexis to cancel its planned $100 million initial public offering in September, citing poor market conditions. Codexis was the third biofuel-related company to withdraw its IPO. While decisions like these weren't unique to biofuel companies, they reflected an overall stumbling block for venture capital-backed green technology companies – with the economy entering a freefall, the IPO exit door was all but closed by year's end.
U.S. Won't Meet its own Biofuel Mandate (Dec. 17)
The 2008 Energy Independence and Security Act set a goal of producing 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 – a mandate that was meant to give a big boost to biofuel makers. But a December report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration cast doubt on that goal, saying the nation will probably only be able to produce 30 billion gallons by that deadline. The bad news didn't apply only to makers of corn-based ethanol. A recent survey by investment firm ThinkEquity indicates that cellulosic ethanol companies will be able to supply only 28.5 million gallons will be available in 2010, short of the government's100 million gallon goal (see Consumers to Pick Up Tab for Off-Target Cellulosic Ethanol Industry).
Algae Biofuel Investments Explode (Sept. 18)
While cellulosic ethanol makers eyes switchgrass, corncobs, municipal waste and a host of other non-food feedstocks, it was algae that caught the fancy of the venture capital community in 2008. Companies promising to make biofuel from algae had raised a record-breaking $179.5 million as of September, according to the Cleantech Group.
GreenFuel Farms 100 Square Meters of Algae (Oct. 21)
The aspirations of algae-to-biofuel companies – and the challenges facing them – can be seen in the ups and downs of GreenFuel Technologies Corp., one of the oldest algae-to-biofuel companies out there. In October, GreenFuel announced its first commercial project, a $92 million, 100-hectare algae farm in Spain is expected to be complete by 2011. GreenFuel has seen some tough times, however, including layoffs and executive change.
Fueling With Diesel-Producing Fungi (Nov. 4)
Amid the confusing welter of pathways being promised for future biofuel production, new research kept up its pace, and yielded some interesting new potential candidates for the future. One of them is Gliocladium roseum, a fungus that dwells inside the branches of trees in the Patagonian rain forest. Six years after first collecting samples of the fungus, Gary Strobel, a plant-sciences professor at Montana State University, announced that he had discovered the fungus made hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives that are found in diesel fuel when placed in a low-oxygen environment.
Ethanol, Farm Industry Split on Candidates (Nov. 3)
It would be remiss of us to overlook the importance of politics on the biofuels industry's development – particularly in an election year. Luckily for the biofuel advocates Greentech Media spoke to before the 2008 presidential election, their favorite candidate won. President-elect Barack Obama promised during his campaign to push for the country by 2030 to use 60 billion gallons of "advanced" biofuels. He pledged to require that all new vehicles sold in the country be "flex-fuel" vehicles, able to use fuel containing mostly biofuel, by the end of his first term. And he called for a national low-carbon fuel standard that could be a boon to the industry.